Access to the full content is only available to members of institutions that have purchased access. If you belong to such an institution, please log in or find out more about how to order.



Smith, Adam (1723–90)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB061-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 13, 2024, from

Article Summary

Despite his reputation as the founder of political economy, Adam Smith was a philosopher who constructed a general system of morals in which political economy was but one part. The philosophical foundation of his system was a Humean theory of imagination that encompassed a distinctive idea of sympathy. Smith saw sympathy as our ability to understand the situation of the other person, a form of knowledge that constitutes the basis for all assessment of the behaviour of others. Our spontaneous tendency to observe others is inevitably turned upon ourselves, and this is Smith’s key to understanding the moral identity of the individual through social interaction. On this basis he suggested a theory of moral judgment and moral virtue in which justice was the key to jurisprudence. Smith developed an original theory of rights as the core of ‘negative’ justice, and a theory of government as, primarily, the upholder of justice. But he maintained the political significance of ‘positive’ virtues in a public, non-governmental sphere. Within this framework he saw a market economy developing as an expression of humanity’s prudent self-interest. Such self-interest was a basic feature of human nature and therefore at work in any form of society; but commercial society was special because it made the pursuit of self-interest compatible with individual liberty; in the market the poor are not personally dependent upon the rich. At the same time, he recognized dangers in commercial society that needed careful institutional and political management. Smith’s basic philosophy is contained in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), but a major part concerning law and government was never completed to Smith’s satisfaction and he burnt the manuscript before he died. Consequently the connection to the Wealth of Nations (1776) can only be partially reconstructed from two sets of students’ notes (1762–3 and 1763–4) from his Lectures on Jurisprudence at Glasgow (Smith [1762–6] 1978). These writings are complemented by a volume of essays and student-notes from lectures on rhetoric and belles-lettres.

Although a philosopher of public life and in some measure a public figure, Adam Smith adhered to the Enlightenment ideal of privacy to a degree rarely achieved by his contemporaries. He left no autobiographical accounts and, given his national and international fame, the surviving correspondence is meagre. The numerous eyewitness reports of him mostly relate particular episodes and individual traits of character. Just as there are only a few portraits of the man’s appearance, there are no extensive accounts of the personality, except Dugald Stewart’s ‘Life of Adam Smith’ (1793), written after Smith’s death and designed to fit Stewart’s eclectic supplementation of common sense philosophy. While Smith was a fairly sociable man, his friendships were few and close only with men who respected his desire for privacy. David Hume was pre-eminent among them.

Citing this article:
Haakonssen, Knud. Smith, Adam (1723–90), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB061-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

Related Articles